Third part of my short series describing the symbolism of colors in Polish folklore.
Again, starting with a bit of vocabulary and etymology for the interested (you might skip these few points to go right to the text below):
- black (noun): czerń
- adjectives: (she) czarna; (he) czarny; (it) czarne [full declension here at wiktionary]
- etymology: coming from Proto-Slavic *čьrnъ, from earlier *čьrxnъ < *kьršnъ, from Proto-Balto-Slavic *kiršnas, from Proto-Indo-European *kr̥snós (black) [wiktionary]
- the above root for the color black is pretty much consistent across all Slavic languages
- also called: kary (used only to describe the color of horses) and wrony (used to describe colors of other animals, today rarely in use)
The color black is undoubtely among the most important colors, and supplements the dualistic nature of many other tones. It’s sacred, mystic, old, and eternal.
In the traditional rural sense, the notion of “czerń” encompassed many dark tones, from saturated black to dark browns and dark grays (only the tones on the darkest side of the color spectrum). While the color white was rare and transitory within the nature surrounding the people in the past, the color black was omnipresent and defining the nighttime, the underworld, the unknown, or supplementing all the colors visible during the daytime.
I’ll focus on the concept of the light against the dark for a start.
A simplified concept of the light and the darkness being separate or playing against each other is largely a syncretized notion taken from Christianity which came to these lands. In that Christian sense, the light was used to disperse the darkness, and the contrast between them was often exaggerated. Zbigniew Libera in his article about the colors in folklore (link in my sources, article in Polish), wrote distinctly about that dualistic concept in the context of the Bible (my translation, with my commentary in the square brackets):
Upon being born, people belong to the pagans, which [according to Christianity] means to the darkness. Plunged into the darkness, their minds are enlightened only by the baptism, which is the beginning of a path towards eternal light, towards the God. A righteous human lives in the light, happiness and unity with the God [the light], but the evil human is under the power of the Satan [the darkness]. The light is used to introduce each theophany [=appearance of a deity]”. However in the Bible the darkness does not exclude the existence of the God. “In the darkness the God does not see, but is also not seen; he is present, but does not communicate or interact”.
However in the Slavic rural cosmology it’s much more nuanced. Light and darkness clearly coexist, and complement each other alternately in a clearly dualistic sense.
The Earth where antagonistic forces clash is the area of the Cosmos where the brightness, the day, the spring and the darkness, the night, the winter come alternately. (…) The rural vision of the world emphasizes the constant struggle between the light and darkness, day and night, spring and winter, their cyclical succession in the mythical history of the cosmos. (Z.Libera)
The colors white and black were very often synonymous with the light (daytime) and the darkness (nighttime) respectively, but their symbolic interpretations carry much more informations. As you already might’ve noticed from my previous articles in the color series, all colors carry a dualistic nature and have both good and bad sides, depending on a context in play. The black color can mean both the death and the life: the darkness of the underworld and of the night, but also the nutritious life-giving “black soil” (in Polish: czarnoziem, coming from words czarna+ziemia). Underlying notions such as “there’s no light without darkness” are clear and distinct in the folklore.
Birds with contrasting black-and-white feathers such as storks or sparrows were seen as the most sacred messengers. They were souls travelling between the underworld and the world of the living, combining the sacred nature of both these colors. In some Polish rural stories a 7-year-old black rooster could give birth to an evil dragon (smok) or to a basilisk, in a mystifying and mysterious process.
Black is the color of the earth and of primeval wilderness, of the underworld and of the unknown. Murky black water is home to many spirits, and a black-colored sea appears in folk stories as a road to the underworld.
Many spirits living in the nature or protecting it are described as having black fur, black hair, or other black attributes or accessories in the rural stories. Primeval beings such as czart / czort, bies or boginki hide in the darkness of the woods or waters, and are often described as black in appearance (for example, boginki or rusałki with long black hair). Upon the influence of Christianity many of such beings were later described as “evil servants of the devil”, after their role in the rural mythology had been reduced to chthonic beings (of or relating to the underworld) or “demons”, their role of the protectors of nature pared down.
What might be worth mentioning here, the rural stories about “devils” (Pol. diabły) differ a lot from the Christian sense of that word. Scary stories about destructive devils are quite rare in the Polish legends. There, a devil was indeed a cunning creature wanting to bring damage to the people and their household, prone to mischief, but he’s also a social and playful creature who loved music, dance, and gatherings. He has lots of weaknesses and can be easily deceived, misled, outplayed by the main characters in these stories. Some of characteristics of devils from those stories might point to a close connection with what could be described as servants of the god Veles, or even Veles himself, syncretized in rural mythology over the long centuries. Who, coincidentally, is also a god of the underworld, and of the arts and music.
In Slavic mythology there appear names of Czarnobóg (czarny+bóg, black god) and Czarnogłów (czarna+głowa, black head), the first appearing in 12-century Chronica Slavorum and the second in 13th-century Knýtlinga saga. Those names as spelled by non-Slavic chroniclers in the manuscripts were “Zcerneboch” and “Tjarnaglofi”, and they might relate to one and the same deity. In the English language his name is spelled Chernobog. According to the sources mentioned above, he was worshipped by the extinct Polabian Slavs (medieval Slavic tribes related to modern Poles and Czechs). There’s still an ongoing debate whether it was a deity’s name, or maybe rather a title (according to some theories, they might be even titles of the god Veles, used by the Western Slavic tribes). There’s still not enough legitimate resources to interpret these texts clearly and most of the discourse revolves around comparative studies. Quoting the article by Miroslava T. Znayenko regarding the description found in Chronica Slavorum:
Admittedly, Helmold’s identification of the evil god as Diabol or Zcerneboch in contrast to a nameless good god carries certain Christian overtones. […] Helmold appears to be genuinely perplexed rather than shocked […] by the Slavs’ “strange delusion” of invoking with words of execration both a good and an evil god (believed to be the same as the devil). Since Helmold offers no explanation of this paradox, we would be justified by saying that he views the worship of these two deities as a phenomenon beyond his comprehension. […]
The word could also be a taboo name for an ancient khtonic deity, in which case the god’s color need not have had a moral connotation, signifying simply a god of the underworld or a daemonic being. Finally, the name’s second component, “bog,” which according to Ivanov and Toporov on the Proto-Slavic and Indo·-Iranian level meant not only a deity but also a distributor of fates (dolia-nedolia) and good or bad fortune (schast’eneschast’e), does point to the direct dual nature of Slavic religious concepts
The above quote show clearly a problem in interpretation of the Old Gods in the medieval manuscripts: our only “authentic” sources (time-wise) about the old Slavic paganism were usually written by Christian scholars, who described everything from their own perspective as comparisons.
In the old customs, black could be a color of separation or rejection. There used to be a popular tradition of serving a “black soup” to a man whose marriage proposal was rejected by a family.
At homes in the countryside a so-called “czarna izba” (black room) played a huge role in the everyday life. It was the room where the hearth (later the stove) was located. The name of that room came from the soot that covered the walls over time. It was the main room at home where most of the everyday family life was taking place, and it was also the living space where many home spirits liked to reside, such as domowiki, hiding close to the source of warmth.
In rural costumes, the color black used to be hard to obtain in the natural processes of dyeing textiles, and became synonymous with rare elegance. In late 19th century black cloth, suddenly easier to obtain thanks to industrialized production, became one of the favourite backdrops for decorative bodices worn by women in many regions of Poland, as it provided a distinct contrast for the colorful embroidery. In some regions the black clothes had a significant meaning: in regions like Silesia, famous for the coal mining, black became the most dignifying color to the point when even brides were adorned with outfits made from black materials, and it was synonymous with a rewarding hard work – like the tough job of the miners.
[+more to come+]
Sources [PL only]:
- Zbigniew Libera: “Semiotyka barw w polskiej kulturze ludowej i innych kulturach słowiańskich“; in: “Etnografia Polska” t.31 z.1, 1987
- Aleksander Gieysztor: “Mitologia Słowian”, wyd. rozszerzone 2006
- Renata Dźwigoł “Polskie ludowe słownictwo mitologiczne”, 2004
- Henryk Biegelsen “Wesele“, 1929
- “Źródła kultury ludowej Puszczy Sandomierskiej“, pod redakcją Krzysztofa Ruszla, 2014
- Aleksander Brückner “Słownik etymologiczny języka polskiego“, 1927
- Krzysztof Grudnik “Rozwój gniazda słowotwórczego rdzenia czar-“, 2010
- Zuzanna Krótki “Czary w leksyce dawnej polszczyzny”, w: SŁOWO. Studia językoznawcze 7/2016 [PDF]
- Myroslava T. Znayenko: “On the Concept of Chernebog and Bielbog in Slavic Mythology” [PDF]
2 thoughts on “Black: colors in Polish folklore (part 3)”
I am really enjoying this series on colors! Will you be adding other colors as well? Just curious…:) Thank you so much for sharing the information that you share here on your site. I feel like I am sinking back into my roots a lot deeper than ever. It’s been amazing to learn so much and begin to add this into my daily life spiritual practices. It’s all very appreciated…<3
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Soolah, thank you so much for the comment! I plan at least 2 more articles in the series which would be the colors green and blue. Even though I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface here, I hope it paints the right picture of what do these colors represent. Have a safe journey through your path ♥
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